Chapter Two of ‘The Gateway’ (and two jokes)

The eagerly awaited second chapter follows – well, one or two have been waiting! However, I thought I’d make it two jokes this week, one in front and one following!

    We’re not saying the Welsh are tight, but…
    Jones the farmer and his son Berwyn sign up for a sight-seeing tour in a small aircraft. As always, Jones angles for the best deal possible.

    “Very well, Mr Jones,” says the pilot. “If you can go through the entire flight without making a sound, you and Berwyn can have your tickets for free.”

    So the plane takes off and the pilot makes sure it’s a rough one, launching almost straight up, flying under the Severn Bridge, using every single bit of acrobatics in his repertoire and doing a loop at the end. Jones says nothing. After they land, the pilot turns to Jones in disbelief.

    “Mr Jones, I’ve been doing this for 20 years and no-one’s ever been able to hold back from screaming. Tell me, was there ever a point in the flight where you wanted to say something?”

    “Aye,” Jones replies. “When Berwyn fell out.


    c/o Imagine this with 5 masts
    Imagine this with 5 masts

    Aidan was fed up to the back teeth. He was cold, drenched to the skin, exhausted and he ached from head to toe. He had spent all morning in darkness being hammered by the storm, with occasional sightings of a horrendous sea below him trying its damnedest to drown him. And, although his errand had been completed, he was still very frightened.

    He missed the reassuring presence of Tragen and yearned to get back to him, he’d always felt safe when the old wizard was near. When danger threatened, or insecurity and depression set in, Aidan always made a bee-line for his mentor and stuck to him like glue. He needed Tragen. He knew in his bones that nothing bad would happen to him with the wizard close by.

    The relentless, brutal motion of the ship continued to cause him harm. Besides the knocks bruising every bone in his body, the sound of the wind moaning through the rigging inflicted a very odd light-headedness and his soaking wet, woollen robe chafed his legs and neck. Though the ship was no longer leaning right over, there was still a corkscrewing of the vessel and he felt sick every time he looked up at the mastheads swaying across the sky. The ship had not yet been turned into the wind and he prayed for it fervently.

    ‘Come on, Master, turn this bloody thing quick or I’m going to throw up everywhere.’ He often talked to himself when he was scared and he was always anxious when alone. ‘I know, I know, I’m not a baby, I shouldn’t whine like this, but if you had my stomach you’d feel the same.’

    He rested in the lee of casks that had somehow not broken free of their lashings. And, as he stared out over the rail at the high grey water racing along the hull, his earliest memories came flooding back. He’d heard that drowning men saw their life rushing past their eyes just before they succumbed and crossed over. Did this mean he was about to die? He smiled determinedly—there was no way he was going to die yet, not without knowing that Tragen was safe.

    A sudden dousing by a heavy wave recalled him to the Grim and his immediate danger, forcing him to put his recollections to the back of his mind. He struggled to his feet again and reached the after hatchway, waiting for another very menacing gust of wind and heavy rain to disperse before raising the cover. Crouching, he flung his leg over the coaming, and stepping onto the top rung of the ladder he brought in his other leg quickly. He lowered his hunched body into shelter, slamming closed the hatch above him, shutting out much of the noise and the little light that remained behind the ever-darkening clouds.

    He started down the ladder rapidly in the blackness and abruptly halted as he stepped on something soft. The hand, jerked from beneath his foot, was accompanied by one almighty yell. Aidan panicked and, because his hands were cold, wet and blistered and he was feeling very alone, he lost his grip. He fell, landing on the body of the owner of the hand who bawled for a second time.

    Aidan banged his head once again. ‘Ow! No more, I’ve had enough,’ he exclaimed, holding his head in his hands. ‘Who in hell are you!’ he shouted into the darkness. ‘You’ve no right to be on that bloody ladder when I’m coming down. Didn’t you see me opening the hatch?’

    ‘No, I didn’t, all right! Not until it was too late! You clumsy idiot, how was I to know you’d come down as I’m climbing up? It’s dark down here I can’t see a thing! The first I know the wind is trying to blow me off the ladder and then some fool standing on my fingers. You came down too fast for me to do anything! Couldn’t you have looked first…get off me?’ He pushed Aidan roughly to one side, resulting in another bashed elbow for the wizard’s apprentice.

    ‘Okay, Anders, okay. Calm down, I can’t see anything either.’ Aidan said, relieved at recognizing the voice of his best friend, Hugo Locklear’s cabin boy and nephew.

    He and Anders had become virtually inseparable since their first meeting, ten years before, when they had played with a model boat. The only time that they were apart now was when the voyages of the Grim interfered with their lives. This was one of the few cruises they’d ever shared.

    Anders was big with long blond hair. A lot taller and broader than Aidan, he was also more cautious. Aidan was impetuous and a risk taker, although Tragen called his behaviour crass stupidity. Nevertheless, the young wizard was a natural leader, daring, with a sense of humour that was sometimes beyond his friend’s reckoning. But his status as a wizard’s apprentice accorded him a certain respect in Anders’ eyes, though this deference did not stretch to being landed on, in the pitch dark, on a ship rolling like mad on the seas.

    ‘Aidan? Where’ve you been, I’ve been looking everywhere for you?’

    ‘Didn’t you think to look up top? Ooh! I’m hurting all over,’ he moaned.

    ‘Where the hell do you think I was going when you so kindly trod on me?’ Anders snapped, clutching his own fingers tightly to try and stop the pain.

    ‘All right…all right, forget it! I’m sorry, let’s get to my cabin I have to change out of this robe before going back up on the quarterdeck.’ Aidan rose gingerly from the floor and leaning against the bulkhead waited for Anders to regain his feet.

    ‘Where’s your lantern, Anders?’

    ‘Are you mad? How the hell could I carry a lantern with the ship dancing about like this? It’s safer without one; you want me responsible for starting a fire in this weather? Don’t forget these timbers are impregnated with tar.

    ‘Okay…okay! Let’s go,’ Aidan said, more cheerful now that he had company, ‘we’ll find a lantern in my cabin somewhere.’

    ‘What were you doing coming in that way if you were on the quarterdeck, that’s the wrong end of the ship?’

    ‘I was at the helm with Tragen when the Bear ordered me to the bo’sun at the mainmast. I had to leave Tragen up there. I hope he’s all right, I haven’t seen him for ages.’

    ‘Who, the Bear or Tragen?’ asked Anders, knowing who Aidan meant but unable to resist teasing him. Aidan only ever worried about Tragen.

    Aidan chose to ignore him and as they arrived at the door of his cabin they heard loud female voices from farther along the passage. And Aidan recalled the other passengers.

    ‘Hell, I forgot about them and I wouldn’t mind betting Tragen has as well. Come on, hurry up, when I’ve changed we’d better see if they need us.’

    ‘They’re all right, I’ve just left them. They’re the ones who sent me to the Bear…they wanted to know what was happening. I was hoping to find you first’

    ‘Oh yeah! And what were you doing down here with them?’ asked Aidan, smirking in the darkness. ‘Which young lady were you more concerned about?’

    ‘It wasn’t like that,’ said Anders blushing, thankful he couldn’t be seen. ‘I have strict orders, if anything seems untoward and the captain isn’t around, I am to place myself at their disposal. You know that, so stop messing about!’

    Laughing, Aidan pushed his door open and they both entered an even blacker hole. ‘Help me search for the lantern, I want to get my britches on instead of this robe, it’s rubbing me raw. We’ll go along anyway and see what all that noise is about.’

    Anders eventually found the lantern tipped on its side on the bottom bunk. He lifted it and shook the well. ‘There’s only a drop of oil left in it, the rest has leaked into the blankets. Oh well, all we need now is a flame to light the thing.’

    ‘Hang on I can light it,’ Aidan said as he put all thoughts of the girls to the back of his mind.

    ‘Whoa, are you sure? We can’t afford an accident in here,’ Anders, all of a sudden, was very anxious.

    ‘Hey, show a bit of faith, I’ve made fire hundreds of times, haven’t I? You’ve seen me. Now, hold it still man, I don’t want to burn you.’

    ‘How can I hold it still with this ship jumping around?’

    Nevertheless, Anders held the lantern chest high between them. Only the groaning of ship’s timbers undergoing enormous stress, and the muted howling of the storm was audible at first. Then a moment later a low murmur grew which shut out all external noise. Aidan gently sang the chant.

    Anders liked this spell; it always gave him a pleasantly warm feeling starting in the pit of his stomach. It made him think of summers spent in the meadows along the river bank outside the castle of Mantovar. He pictured his family and without warning homesickness was a heavy lump in his chest. He loved being the cabin boy on the Grim and was very fond of his uncle, Hugo Locklear, but he did miss his father and mother and even missed quarrelling with his brothers.

    The ship lurched and threw his shoulder against the top bunk, jarring him.

    ‘Keep still, Anders,’ warned Aidan, biting his bottom lip.

    ‘Sorry!’ Anders broke into a cold sweat, he’d seen too many of the young wizard’s spells go awry.

    Gradually the darkness lightened and as visibility increased so Anders breathed again. Fascinated, he saw Aidan standing in front of him with his left arm outstretched, in the palm of his hand a small flame flickered. Anders glanced at his friend’s face and watched his lips moving. Witnessing Aidan make magic always gave Anders goose pimples, and such was the case now.

    ‘Come on, open the glass, I can’t hold this forever.’

    Anders complied and the wick ignited, giving a bright white light. Aidan withdrew his hand preparing to extinguish the small flame. They were both completely unready for what happened next.

    It was this very moment the four men on the quarterdeck turned the ship into the wind. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for the boys. Aidan stumbled forwards and Anders instinctively pushed him away from the lantern to keep it safe.

    The wizard’s apprentice scrabbled frantically to grab hold of the top bunk, missed and, falling after it, he dropped the flame on the bed beneath. The spilled oil ignited. Aidan rolled from the flames and landed on the floor. Anders, moving abnormally fast for him, dropped the lantern on the deck, and grabbed Aidan’s blankets from where they had fallen earlier that morning in the corner of the cabin. He threw them onto the blaze and, dropping on top of them, he smothered the flames. Luckily, the lantern remained upright, but it slid rather inconveniently against Aidan’s leg and he gave another agonizing moan as the hot glass burnt his shin—and there was another scream from along the passage.

    ‘What the hell’s happening to me today? Why did I get out of bed?’ Aidan groaned as he handed the lantern up to Anders. ‘Oh aye, that’s right I had no choice did I? I fell out of bed because this bloody ship decided to fall over. And what’s that racket all about?’

    Aidan stood up and surveyed the carnage around him. The bottom bunk now had a dirty great hole burned in it; wisps of smoke were floating about in the air, acrid and stinging. There was a pile of smouldering blankets alongside Anders who was striving to control his shattered nerves. He was sitting on the edge of the bunk with his eyebrows and hair singed and his face and clothes covered in smuts. Aidan laughed and looked down at himself and saw the self-same smuts covering his own drenched and torn robe.

    ‘I might as well throw this away,’ he said, pulling bits of soot off his chest. And then the full significance of what he was seeing hit him fair and square between the eyes. ‘Oh, my God, when Tragen sees his bed I’m dead!’

    There was another scream, an angry female voice complaining, her words at this distance indistinct. They stared at each other a moment and then scrambled up and rushed for the door, colliding in the doorway, they made for the cabins aft and all the noise. Anders held his lantern aloft at the entrance to Princess Augusta’s cabin.

    You could tell at a glance this was a rich person’s berth. The room was relatively spacious, had only one cot and something unheard of in the lesser cabins, its own bathing facilities on a dresser in the far corner. On normal days, the berth would catch the daylight and cooling sea-breezes through the open porthole. Now, though, the cabin was dark and very wet.

    Two girls in their middle teens were struggling to close the porthole, and at the same time trying to avoid the foaming water washing through it.
    Aidan burst out laughing at the black-haired girl, her arms at full stretch, groping to find the clips that secured the shutter closed, and at the same time bending her head away in a vain attempt to avoid the inundation.

    ‘Pull it harder will you? We’ve nearly done it.’ Augusta shouted in temper.

    ‘I’m pulling as hard as I can, it’s your clip…you’ve jammed it. Why you opened it I’ll never know,’ Beatrix retorted, blowing her blonde hair out of her mouth.

    ‘I didn’t know half the ocean would pour in when they turned the ship, did I? Release yours a bit for me to move mine, you silly girl, how can I shift the damned clip if you’re holding it tight?’ It was then she heard Aidan laughing behind her and turning, Princess Augusta glared at the two scruffy boys standing in her doorway.

    Anders caught the baleful glint in her eye and gave Aidan a hefty nudge in his side to silence him.

    ‘Not you again?’ Augusta said icily. The mutual animosity of the heir to the principality of Mantovar and the apprentice wizard reared its ugly head once again. ‘Well churl? What are you finding so amusing?’

    Aidan, kneading the ache from his side, ceased laughing. His prince’s daughter usually vented her spleen in his direction with the result that nine times out of ten he ended up being reprimanded for upsetting her. But seeing water dripping from the end of her nose reminded him of the nosebleed he’d once inflicted on her and he had a twinge of conscience.

    ‘I apologize, Highness; I’ve had a bad day. Here let us shut it for you.’

    He and Anders strode into the cabin and Beatrix moved away from the open porthole, glad to be out of the direct line of the water slurping through. The two boys managed the clips easily although Aidan got another soaking; not that it mattered, he’d had the sea thrown at him all day. Aidan turned to Augusta wondering if she’d thank him this time, not that she ever had in the past when he’d helped her. He stood just in from the doorway staring at her, waiting for any sign of gratitude.

    ‘Well churl! Why are you standing there? You may go now,’ her eyes flashed angrily.

    Anders’ lantern, held up by Beatrix, illumined not only the cabin, but also the scowl on Aidan’s face.

    ‘All right, Anders, thank you for helping me to close the lady’s porthole, very kind of you,’ he said sarcastically. ‘I think we should go now.’

    ‘Thank you, Miss,’ Anders said, taking the lantern from Beattie’s hand, accidentally touching her fingers as he did so.

    Beatrix replied softly, her eyes lowered as her face reddened. ‘Thank you for your help, Master Anders.’

    Anders paused, her unusual reaction startling him. He didn’t know that over the years Beatrix’s thoughts had turned many times to the handsome, tall, blond boy who hung around with the young wizard. He nodded and touched his forelock and wondered why the object of his daydreams was blushing. He glanced at Aidan and pulled him away, turning they made to leave the room.

    As they did, a short, fat lady came bursting through exclaiming at the top of her voice. ‘What is amiss? What is all this noise? Why is this boat never still? I’ve had the devil of a time getting here. Ah! What are these boys doing in here?’ The scandalized lady, not stopping for breath went on shouting. ‘Get out, get out, you should not…’

    And saying this, she caught her toes in the torn hem of Aidan’s robe and fell forward, taking the apprentice down with her. All heard a mighty crack as the lady’s ankle snapped. Screaming in Aidan’s ear, she promptly fainted.

    Everyone stopped breathing; time stood still, no-one made a sound; they looked at each other, stunned. Aidan was the first to recover and he gently removed himself from beneath the heavy woman whilst almost spitting invectives.

    ‘I have now had enough! Don’t look at me like that, Anders, it was not my fault. She was the one who came barging in not looking where she was going. She fell on me, remember?’

    Augusta shouted her hands akimbo. ‘Lady Cornelia, my lady-in-waiting, has more right in here than either of you two!’

    ‘We were helping you close your bloody porthole, or have you forgotten?’ Aidan barked thoroughly incensed, not caring a damn that the girl was his liege lord’s daughter.

    ‘Please, everyone, let us see to her hurt and argue later, can we?’ Beatrix pleaded as she knelt beside the unconscious woman.

    ‘I think I heard a bone break,’ Anders said, going down on his knees beside his princess’ companion. ‘Can you lift her gown for Aidan to check, Miss?’

    ‘Lift her gown!’ Augusta exclaimed her sensibilities shocked. ‘Most certainly not; indeed not, that is an outrageous suggestion!’

    ‘Highness, we will not need to lift it high. Look you can see her foot is at a very odd angle,’ beseeched Anders.

    Augusta paused; her mouth closed, lips stretched thin her eyes travelling to the lady’s ankle. Reluctantly agreeing with the cabin boy’s diagnosis, she glared at Aidan.

    ‘You…look away. It is enough for one male to see her ankle and as you’re the one that broke it I don’t…’

    Aidan curled his lip, sneering. ‘Look…you…’ but before he could continue with a remark that would have definitely resulted in serious punishment, Lady Cornelia groaned as Beatrix slid the hem of the big woman’s gown partway up her shin to expose the wound.

    Aidan turned his back on his princess thereby showing his utter contempt for her and knelt to examine the fracture.

    ‘Do not touch her boy, do you wish to do her more damage?’ Augusta ordered.

    Aidan, his temper at boiling point, for once had the sense to bite off the earthy retort he had in mind. He looked up at her.

    ‘I am a wizard’s apprentice, and I am skilled in healing. I may not have the airs and graces that you deem so important, but I can begin the restorative process in all injuries. That I deem far more important! I need to keep her sedated now until my master gets here to help me, asleep she will at least be unaware of her pain. So please, for once in your life…SHUT UP!’

    Augusta, utterly shocked at being spoken to in that manner, complied without thinking twice.

    Aidan turned to his friend who was equally dumbstruck. ‘Anders, find Lord Tragen and tell him I need his help right away, he’s probably still on the quarterdeck. Tell him I’m keeping her sedated until he gets here.’

    Anders ran, bouncing off the walls along the very dark passage to the captain’s companionway.

    The undoubted authority in Aidan’s voice, lingering in the cabin, coerced Augusta into remaining silent. She watched him sitting on the floor cradling the injured woman’s head in his arms. Aidan put his hand on Cornelia’s forehead and closed his eyes. Singing his chant and stroking with his fingers above her eyes, the lady slipped into a deep, painless sleep.

    Augusta and Beatrix looked at each other both unable to comprehend the transformation in the boy who had plagued them for so long. In all the years of their childhood they had never actually seen the apprentice heal. Though they’d heard stories of his talent bandied about the castle they’d never really believed any of them. Augusta had always thought him a perishing nuisance, a thumping headache. But if she was honest with herself, she never avoided his company and on times actually sought it—usually to bait him.

    ‘If you’ll excuse me, Highness, I’ll get something to keep her warm, she’s lying on wet boards.’ Beatrix moved across and retrieved the thick blanket folded at the foot of Augusta’s cot.

    Augusta, her feelings in turmoil, all at once recognized that she was feeling guilty, a sentiment that she never usually acknowledged. Her thoughts tumbled through her head confusing her even more. Her impatience, her anger, always so near the surface ready to erupt at the slightest provocation, she knew there was no need half the time for her to be so irritable and arrogant. Her manner was deplorable. And yet she couldn’t stop, so she bit her lip looking for excuses, thoughts running wild in her head.

    ‘It has to be this seasickness, I…I can’t help it. And now…oh God, poor Cornelia! I do hope this boy knows what he is doing,’ she said, but not loud enough for anyone to hear her.
    Don’t mess with a Welsh mam

    Young Dylan comes home from school and tells his mother he’s been given a part in the school play.

    “Wonderful,“ says his mam. “What part is it?”

    The boy says: “I play the part of the Welsh husband.”

    The mother scowls and says: “Go back and tell them you want a speaking part.

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